Imagine this: you’re sitting at home watching TV and it’s time for a commercial break. You reach for your phone for a little entertainment and start flipping through your feed to see your friends’ dogs, kids, and meals on Instagram. Maybe you follow a few sports teams, bands, or brands and their content appears as well. Once you get to the photos you’ve already seen, what do you do next?  Perhaps you will click on the search icon on your dashboard and see what Explore has to offer. Prior to Intagram’s latest update, you would see an unrelated collection of photos based on people you follow. Potentially intriguing, but unless the thumbnail of a particular image jumped out from the 20 photos on your screen there was not much motivation to dig any deeper.  Enter Instagram’s newest search update, featuring trending topics and curated collections in addition to the Explore images. This may not seem like a major advancement, but for both consumers and brands it presents some exciting opportunities.

For the consumer, the search and discovery process has been enhanced with additional tabs for more specific search terms and curated collections with rotating themes. The new search grants users a more advanced filtering system to narrow results to what they are really interested in. While the previous Explore collection provided only thumbnails of photos with no context, trending tags and collections place new content at the users’ fingertips with minimal effort. With Trending Hashtags, users are presented with the most popular topics on the platform at any given time.

The enhanced discovery process is beneficial not only to user experience, but to brands looking to leverage the platform for consumer engagement and awareness. In addition to making it easier for users to locate profiles and places with the advanced search, brands have the opportunity to monitor popular themes and discussions for conversations they can leverage and engage with.

As the new search continues to be utilized and further developed, the question of how these changes will impact how the platform is used remains. Will it become more of a hub for discovery or remain focused on visual stimulation and creativity? There are those who speculate that Instagram stands to compete with Twitter in delivering real time updates and news. The new format places real time images and trends front and center for consumers, making it easy to discover the latest chatter. With its strong emphasis on visual content Instagram can deliver stories in a highly engaging manner. Instagram also allows for more detailed descriptions of events and photos, a strong advantage over Twitter’s 140 character limit.  However, despite these strengths, there are still several barriers to Instagram’s climb to news giant. First and foremost is Instagram’s core base use in comparison to Twitter’s established dominance as the instant news site. Consumer habits can be hard to break or alter, making it a challenge to position Instagram as a news outlet. Second, while Tweets require only text content to tell the story, Instagram posts demand visual content for a post, making successive posts and updates more difficult. Finally, Instagram’s lack of links in photo captions means that despite compelling imagery that can accompany news, there is no way for users to click through to the full story or additional content.

Instagram’s new search tools open the doors for a new level of discovery and engagement for users from all backgrounds.  How brands and consumers decide to leverage these new tools will determine just where Instagram will go next.